Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Citizen Activism: Not So Fast

by April 5th, 2010

By Jerry Large

You can improve the world and have a good time, too.

West Seattle writer Paul Rogat Loeb has spent decades exploring and writing about community involvement and citizen activism.

Among the things he’s learned is that change can take a long time and those who laugh along the way last the distance.

We talked about the updated version of his book, “Soul of a Citizen,” which first came out in 1999.

It’s full of stories of people who saw a problem and got busy doing something about it.

Loeb said the book is about being hopeful, “giving people permission to enjoy life as they are being active.”

“When I see somebody like Desmond Tutu who’s been up against so many issues, not just apartheid but going to work in Rwanda and Haiti and taking on the Iraq war and speaking out on climate change. He’s involved in every issue you could imagine and yet if you see his presence it’s the most delightful presence imaginable,” Loeb said. “He’s having a really good time and he’s laughing and joking.”

Loeb transformed two of his own worries into fuel for updating the book.

He saw people who had been engaged in the 2008 presidential campaign losing heart because the issues that animated them weren’t being resolved quickly or in ways that matched their expectations.

“Most of the time when you win you are not winning everything,” he said. “You have to keep pushing for the long haul.”

He opens the book with the story of Rosa Parks. Everyone knows about the seamstress who sat on a bus and challenged segregation.

But people think the change was quick. It took a dozen years. And it involved lots of people and preparation.

The other issue that he wanted to address is climate change, which didn’t seem quite as urgent when he was working on the first edition.

When confronting such big challenges, he said, people shouldn’t be so intimidated that they fail to act.

Taking steps that are now available would make a big difference, Loeb said.

“I have solar panels on my house in rainy West Seattle, and basically my electrical usage is balanced out by what they do,” he said.

The book leans toward liberal activists and causes, but Loeb does include some conservatives. He profiles Rich Cizik, who helped organize the evangelical Climate Initiative, for instance.

And he devotes a chapter to a partnership between the Christian Coalition and the liberal MoveOn to preserve equal access to the Internet when some telecom companies were lobbying to create tiers of service.

I asked where citizen involvement was missing locally. He said hardly anyone knows much about the Port of Seattle.

The Port involves huge amounts of money and lots of jobs and affects the environment, but media and citizen groups haven’t been paying much attention to it.

The League of Women Voters of Greater Seattle is holding a forum on the Port on May 6 (

I know that because Loeb and I spoke at a league event last week, along with Nancy Amidei, who directs the Civic Engagement Project.

That event was called Making Democracy Work, and some of the people there have been active in community life for quite a few years. Amidei says she’s a democracy addict, and I suspect that is true for many of the people who attended the event.

When I called Loeb to talk about his book, the first thing he mentioned was the tone of the gathering.

“It was a serious political event addressing serious issues … and they were laughing. They were having a great time.”

A light spirit is a good way to have staying power when you’re dealing with heavy issues.

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